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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Show, don't tell, blah blah blah......

    Tell me what it means to you. It's the editor's favorite catch phrase. Show, don't tell. Unfortunately each editor seems to have a very different understanding of what literary devices best accomplish that task. Everyone seems to intuit the meaning but that doesn't mean they can explain it. And it's a terribly overused phrase. Still, it's repeated over and over.

    How do you interpret it and how do you prefer the results to read?

  2. #2
    Loveable Rogue Moderator juzzza's Avatar
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    I take it to mean, not using narrative to explain plot or history.

    Derek was a man afraid of commitment. He was still hurting since his last relationship collapsed.

    Vs

    "So tell me, Derek. Are you dating again?" said Jim.

    Derek lowered his eyes and traced the edge of his glass with his finger. "Ah, I'm just keeping busy. Yea, I'm too busy for all that."

    "What was her name again? Jules, right?"

    Derek smiled and raised his glass to his lips without answering the question. The Shiraz was peppery and a little corked but he swallowed it along with his regret. Changing the subject he said, "How's work?"

  3. #3
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Show:Tell = Senses:Mind (sensual:conceptual) = induction:deduction.

    I think that's often the distinction, if it goes beyond: "You bore me."

    Loosely speaking, you "show" the readers what the "problem" is that they're supposed to work out. And you "tell" them the information they need to accomplish that.

    Characterisation, for example:

    "He was a patient man: [list of examples]"

    That's telling; you make connections what "patience" means with regard to the character. Later, in specific scenes, you can "show" in detail one of the behaviours you've connected to patience and that character early on.

    The fashion, currently, is to minimize telling. That means that you're supposed to have just the concrete scene, but not the telling beforehand (or break up the telling beforehand into multiple "showing-scenes"). The theory behind this is that context implies information.

    This doesn't always work. It works best with stereotypical characters; or recognisable behaviour patterns ("biting fingernails" for "nervousness" etc.). The more unusual your characters/setting are the more telling you'll usually get away with.

    Additionally, stories with a more intellectual or allegorical drive will get away with more telling than stories that rely on action or suspense.

    It's always helpful to ask yourself: What am I showing? What am I telling?

    A simple "show, don't tell" often isn't useful, because a single paragraph can contain multiple instances of both; and what's showing on one detail-level may be telling on another.

    If you're giving backstory, you might do that telling-style. Some people would rather have it showing style, though. What's happening, here, is that the infromation you give (via telling) is intended to "show" the genesis of some present-day constellation. What your reader would have liked to read is not an analysis but a sub-plot. The reverse is possible, too. Since showing will take longer (3 long chapters, for example, instead of a short one), if you treat some background information as a sub-plot instead of as an analysis, you risk readers wondering why that's in there at all. They lose the focus, don't see the connection to the main plot.

    Abstracts are usually considered telling. So is forshadowing. And sentences that describe a logical relation: "Even though", "Despite", "If... then..."

    It's a bit silly to try to get rid of all telling. Any criticism along those lines implies an optimal reading mode, or shared knowledge.

    Take Jesus' parable of the "good Samaritan". The power of the parable hinges on the reader's knowledge of the difference between a priest & a levite on the one hand, and a Samaritan on the other. A shared cultural context allowed Jesus to show that the concept of "neighbour" is independent of the cultural friend/enemy opposition. The "showing" would not work if the "friend/enemy opposition" is unknown to the reader. (To modern readers the parable often reads: "Be good, like a Samaritan." whereas it should read: "Be good, even to a Samaritan." That's quite a difference.)

    Btw, the parable itself would be seen as "showing" who your "neighbour" is, instead of just telling it. But hand it in to a modern publisher, and he'll tell you to "show, not tell". This would mean, depending on the particular focus of the pubisher, addressing questions like: don't rely on "telling" words such as "priest", "Levite", or "Samaritan"; make the distinction obvious by the mode of dress; behaviour etc. Don't just tell us how the priest crossed on the other side; how far was he away when he did so? What expression was on his face? Did he hesitate? Did he look back? Given the context the parable is told in, these questions are all irrelevant. It's a parable, not a short story.

    "Show, don't tell," today is often the appallation to the writer to conform to the formal criteria of the "short story" (which, you could almost say, is defined by "showing only", but, then, it's also short. )

    The first thing that comes to mind when I read "show, don't tell" (without specific examples to explain) is: "cliché" or "lazy critic". (Some, though, are very good at pointing out opportunities to make a story more vivid under the guise of "show, don't tell"; so a "default:ignore" might not be the best reaction.)

  4. #4
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    A simple "show, don't tell" often isn't useful, because a single paragraph can contain multiple instances of both; and what's showing on one detail-level may be telling on another.

    Good point Dawn.

    Many interpret to mean that you allow the characters to explain themeselves through their actions and dialogue as opposed to through descriptive narration.

    Good dialogue and succinct descriptive phrases in between can accomplish both.

    Yet some great writers today rely heavily upon narration and descriptive author-centric prose with great success - Martin and Bakker.

    So it seems that dialogue among characters can both show and tell - show if it's done well, tell if it's not.

    In the end, it's the author's talent, not the literary technique itself.

    The first thing that comes to mind when I read "show, don't tell" (without specific examples to explain) is: "cliché" or "lazy critic".

    I read it the same way. It's tiresome.

  5. #5
    Loveable Rogue Moderator juzzza's Avatar
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    Show AND Tell is much more useful than Show, Don't Tell.

    You could always say to the editor, 'show' me what you mean, rather than using that lazy ass expression.

  6. #6
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Right! I bet many editor's would respond kindly to that comment.

    I think they need to find some new phrases to append to our manuscripts.

    I remember when I was writing the 10th draft or so of one of my children's books, my editor gave me one of her very rare compliments. This, she said, was a perfect example of showing, not telling:

    “Don’t fall!” he called back to her as he jumped over the imaginary chasm and landed with both feet together. He teetered back and forth for a moment with his feet glued to the ground and then sighed with relief. “I made it,” he said proudly. “Your turn.”
    Erica swung her arms around and around as fast as she could, trying to lift herself off of the ground so she could fly across the pit. Then she jumped. She sailed over the ravine and landed almost next to Cristopher.
    “Good jump!” he said.
    “That wasn’t a jump,” she replied. “I flew across. Couldn’t you tell?” She was feeling a little bit insulted that he hadn’t realized it himself.
    “Sorry,” he replied. And he really was.

  7. #7
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    That's very powerful writing...

    ...and contains some very effective instances of telling. (For example the conclusion: "And he really was.")



    So, is it the "overall effect", then?

  8. #8
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    But that's exactly what's so interesting about this phrase that's bandied about so loosely. My editor thought that was a perfect example of showing, not telling!

    I think the phrase sounds like it means something much more precise than it really does, and I think it's a catch all, as you said, for criticism when more serious analysis isn't forthcoming.

  9. #9
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Telling? Bad.

    Adverbs? Bad.

    Passive Voice? Bad.

    People have found rules of thumb which work for them, and when they don't really question why they work for them, they may think they're constituting rules of proper writing, and others must understand them at once.

    If I did a creative writing course, I'd warn people away from books such as "The Elements of Style". And half of the course will tell me I haven't taught them anything because they did all the work themselves...

    That said, a critic has no excuse for using such half-thought-through concepts (it's their job to think this through). Editors, on the other hand, may need those rules to stay sane. (Fancy juggling both accountants and artists? That can't be easy...)

  10. #10
    Registered User Sean Wright's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    Right! I bet many editor's would respond kindly to that comment.

    I think they need to find some new phrases to append to our manuscripts.

    I remember when I was writing the 10th draft or so of one of my children's books, my editor gave me one of her very rare compliments. This, she said, was a perfect example of showing, not telling:

    “Don’t fall!” he called back to her as he jumped over the imaginary chasm and landed with both feet together. He teetered back and forth for a moment with his feet glued to the ground and then sighed with relief. “I made it,” he said proudly. “Your turn.”
    Erica swung her arms around and around as fast as she could, trying to lift herself off of the ground so she could fly across the pit. Then she jumped. She sailed over the ravine and landed almost next to Cristopher.
    “Good jump!” he said.
    “That wasn’t a jump,” she replied. “I flew across. Couldn’t you tell?” She was feeling a little bit insulted that he hadn’t realized it himself.
    “Sorry,” he replied. And he really was.
    Hi Gary - So, dialogue and action are considered showing, right? I think it's that simple - from a teacher (me) who points out this show/tell angle on a weekly basis teaching 11 year olds about writing.

    Couldn't ...And he really was...be the character's thought, and therefore telling?
    “Sorry,” he replied. I really am, he said to himself.

  11. #11
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Sean, I don't think it's that cut and dry, do you? It's how it reads in the end, isn't it? I was just responding to another thread on cliches in fantasy and the same goes for that subject. Some cliches are great and should be used over and over because they capture the essence of the emotion that need to be evoked. Blanket rules in anything creative just don't make sense to me.

    My editor loved that paragraph because it showed exactly how the kids felt about one another. I didn't tell the reader how they felt. But honestly, I did tell the reader, but in my style, in my way. These words, show and tell, do belong in a classroom in many respects, but only in reference to sitting around an passing an object from hand to hand. When it comes to writing, every author has a task to accomplish, and their individual skills should dictate the way they achieve their goals.

  12. #12
    Registered User Sean Wright's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
    Telling? Bad.

    Adverbs? Bad.

    Passive Voice? Bad.
    I don't think any of these elements of our language are bad in themselves. I think that an overuse of them would perhaps grate, unless of course you were writing with these elements in mind as statement of style.

    Stephen King beats himself up (On Writing) about his overuse of adverbs in his earlier work, and yet many readers and reviewers consider his earlier books far superior as stories.

    M.R. James and Virginia Woolf are superb writers and yet their prose are littered with passive sentence construction. I think the popular myth regarding active voice has come from business-speak - CVs, memos etc. And perhaps a lack of manners, or assertiveness.

    Make me a cup of tea now, Mr Wright. Thanks.

    If you'd be so kind, when you could fit it in, after you've typed up that letter and tidied away for the day, perhaps you could make us some tea, Mr Wright, could you not?
    Last edited by Sean Wright; April 25th, 2006 at 04:12 PM.

  13. #13
    Registered User Sean Wright's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Wassner
    Sean, I don't think it's that cut and dry, do you? It's how it reads in the end, isn't it? I was just responding to another thread on cliches in fantasy and the same goes for that subject. Some cliches are great and should be used over and over because they capture the essence of the emotion that need to be evoked. Blanket rules in anything creative just don't make sense to me.

    My editor loved that paragraph because it showed exactly how the kids felt about one another. I didn't tell the reader how they felt. But honestly, I did tell the reader, but in my style, in my way. These words, show and tell, do belong in a classroom in many respects, but only in reference to sitting around an passing an object from hand to hand. When it comes to writing, every author has a task to accomplish, and their individual skills should dictate the way they achieve their goals.

    I agree with you, Gary. Although I'll add from my perspective: It's not that cut and dry, and yet as a teacher I'm teaching kids over and over that simple lesson, in the hope that that preferred technique will stick. Why? because the majority haven't yet aquired the language skills (via reading) to fool around with words the way writers tend to do. In fiction, most kids under 11 years tell and not show. The avid young readers however have a stronger idea, based on mimickery of authors' styles. A good thing. It gets them away from telling.
    Last edited by Sean Wright; April 25th, 2006 at 04:15 PM.

  14. #14
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    You teach 11 and 12 year olds? I have a book coming out in August for readers just a bit younger. Maybe you want to try it out in your class. In fact, it's the book that the paragraph above came from.

  15. #15
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    You hit the nail on the head Sean. Read Proust or Wharton. They tell and tell, and I love to hear them tell because they do it so incredibly well.

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